Doors of Perception

By Zachary Block '99 / March / April 2002
July 1st, 2007

On a day in late November, sixteen juniors and seniors sit in a semicircle in a bright classroom of the newly renovated Smith-Buonanno Hall (the former Sayles Gym). Facing them are Professor of Medicine and Community Health David Lewis '57 and his teaching assistant Sarah DiGregorio '02. Lewis, dressed in an orange sweater and blue slacks, his black hair slightly mussed, stands, grabs a piece of chalk, and writes "Dec. 12" in large, sweeping strokes on the blackboard, just in case the students needed a reminder that their final paper in the course, UC 116, Drug and Alcohol Addiction in the American Consciousness, is due in exactly two weeks.

Nearly thirty hours of classes over eleven weeks and hundreds of pages of readings have come down to this: a twenty-to-thirty-page paper on some facet of alcohol or drug policy or abuse. One by one over the next two weeks the students will present their paper topics, using Lewis and their classmates as sounding boards. The papers cover a wide range of issues in disciplines such as community health, public policy, political science, history, and literature. While most require research trips to campus libraries and Lewis's vast files, the reports also draw heavily on the course's varied reading list, which includes such works as Joseph R. Gusfield's Symbolic Crusade, Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night, and Clinical Professor of Psychiatry and Human Behavior Peter D. Kramer's Listening to Prozac.

Despite the course's topic and far-flung reading list, Lewis stresses UC116's coherence and rigor. The "UC" in the course number, which stands for University Course, indicates that it has been flagged as part of a program institutionalized in the mid-1990s (it had its roots in the New Curriculum) intended to nudge students toward a sound liberal education. University Courses synthesize material across disciplines with the aim of fostering general critical-analysis tools rather than the specialized research skills of a particular field of study. In Drug and Alcohol Addiction in the American Consciousness, for example, any topic involving both legal and illegal drugs is open for scrutiny. The class examines the history of alcohol and drug use and abuse in the United States from the temperance movement to such recent trends as the growing use and abuse of Ecstasy and OxyContin. Students study the growth of prescription medication, the policies and debates of drug rehabilitation, and issues of law and privacy, power, and discipline. Because many of the students have firsthand experience with alcohol and drugs or know someone with a history of substance abuse, class discussions often draw on their personal lives. Lewis, however, cautions that the course is not a therapy session and its aim is not to solve students' problems.

He encourages student initiative by requiring rotating pairs of students to lead the class. At the end of the semester he asks students to submit suggestions for modifying the course readings or topics to improve the class for the following year. He then chooses his next undergraduate teaching assistant on the basis of those proposals. The process last fall resulted in the addition of The Bacchae, Euripides' play about self-control and emotional freedom, to the course's reading list.

Over the years other books have come and gone. F. Scott Fitzgerald has been dropped, and Tom Wolfe's Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test is no longer required reading, although it is still on the recommended list. The class still reads Aldous Huxley's The Doors of Perception, but more attention is now paid to the pharmaceutical industry and the manufacture, distribution, and marketing of legal drugs. This year's students seem particularly interested in the evolution of cocaine and opium from major patent medicines at the turn of the twentieth century to illegal drugs today. They note that at one time such drugs were as widely used as Prozac and Ritalin are today.

As the end of the fall semester approaches, students take turns pitching their final-paper ideas to their classmates. One proposes to write about the tension between maintaining drug patents and the moral and legal obligation to provide developing countries with affordable drugs; he wants to focus specifically on the AIDS epidemic in South Africa.

Another student wants to write about the frequently blurred line between legal and illegal drugs. Arguing that drugs are often categorized as illegal for social rather than health reasons, she hopes to focus on the role of the pharmaceutical industry in marketing certain drugs. "Our society condemns amphetamines, but we prescribe Ritalin to children," she tells the class. "The same [is true] with MDMA [Ecstasy] and Prozac. It's not that the medical claims are necessarily wrong, but you can make a lot of the same medical claims for illegal drugs."

"Do you have a central argument that the distinction between legal and illegal drugs is arbitrary or wrong?" a student asks her.

"Not that it's arbitrary, not that it's wrong, but that it came from the social and economic status of our society at a particular point in our history, rather than from medical reasons, even though afterward people made medical claims."

A junior community health concentrator proposes writing about the connection he sees between the often destructive impact of alcohol on families and The Bacchae, in which Pentheus' mother and sisters are so intoxicated by Dionysus that they no longer recognize Pentheus. The student draws a parallel between the play and his own family history, in which liquor drove a wedge between his mother and her alcoholic father. "She said alcohol ruled her household, and alcohol was everything," the student says. "Dinner wasn't served until after cocktails were over." In Euripides' play, the women following Dionysus are classified as insane; was his grandfather, intoxicated with alcohol, similarly crazy? he wonders. A question he wishes to focus on in his paper emerges: "Is [alcoholism] a disease?" he asks aloud. "Or does it plague weak-willed people?"

Students offer various suggestions: Talk about gender issues in the depiction of deviant behavior in The Bacchae. Focus on the family.

"I like your paper topic," one student says. "I think it's bold to take one play and turn it into sort of an allegory for different things we've learned in the course. But be careful. Euripides didn't take this course. Maybe you should say it's your own construct."

Lewis steps in. "It's a personal take," he says. "There are certain risks in these papers, and there's always some anxiety about taking risks, but this is the course to do that. I like your choice. That's good."

With that, Lewis, who says that "the professor is peripheral in this course," yields the floor back to the students. And the class begins dissecting the next paper topic.


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March / April 2002